Outside the small town of Riviere au Sel, on the island of Guadeloupe, a newcomer, Francis Sancher, is found face-down in the mud. Who killed him? Was it one of the fathers of the two young girls who had impregnated? Was it the slightly unhinged postman who felt that his former closest friend had turned his back on him? Was it one of the other villagers who had hated the man for his bombastic ways? Maryse Conde answers this question--or rather, chooses not to answer the question--in her novel set on her own home island set in the middle of the Lesser Antilles.
I was all set to read the Caribbean for good when I found this novel. I had enjoyed my reading, but I was still somewhat dissatisfied. All of the other works I had chosen had seemed a bit inward-looking, with the characters understandably preoccupied with the hardships they were facing. I had still wanted another modern novel, and one preferably written by a women, that would talk about the problems facing the Caribbean today; "Crossing the Mangrove" fit the bill. Paradoxically, though the scene never shifts from the little river town, the interconnectivity of the islands, the evaluations of skin tones, and the heritage of the old colonial cultures--French vs Spanish vs Dutch vs English, are all explored in this murder mystery. Guadeloupe was the site of the only French guillotine set up in the New World--it was the setting for a good part of "El Siglo de las Luces"--which made my choice that much more satisfying.
Conde's writng is beautiful, both lush and evocative. There's an interesting forward by Richard Philcox, her translator and husband, on the difficulties of being true to the creole-flavored writing of the original, and how he found inspiration in (of all unlikely places as he admits) Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse". The reader really feels as if he were there on the island. Yet this is no fantasy paradise; the hardwood forests of the island have vanished, stripped away long ago by the French, and a sleeping volcano looms on the horizon.
Conde chooses to tell the story of how Francisco Alvarez-Sanchez, exiled from Cuba, comes to find himself on Guadeloupe, by various first person narratives that shift with every chapter. Everyone--from the aging teacher that finds his body, to the madman who shows up at the wake for the free food--has a turn at the tale. It gets more than a little confusing; at various times I had to stop to try to recall exactly how the new narrator fit into the story; I was almost tempted to grab a pencil and paper. She's clearly more interested in the people rather than a resolution; the reader never finds out "whodunit" but must draw his or her own conclusions. Some readers might naturally find this a bit maddening, as the refusal of a literary author to engage in the conventions of the genre; I can understand this feeling. I still really enjoyed this book, and would read more of Conde's works.